A new blog, OnFiction, will focus on the psychology of fiction. Contributor Keith Oatley (author of the very interesting re-vision of Middlemarch, A Natural History, as well as a great many scientific papers and books) offers this interesting suggestion for what makes a 'great' novel:
So many academics want the arguments presented in Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) to be true. It encourages the reading of novels at an oblique angle in order to discover hidden colonialist subtexts. It promotes a hypercritical version of British and, more generally, of Western achievements. It discourages any kind of critical approach to Islam in Middle Eastern studies. Above all, Orientalism licenses those academics who are so minded to think of their research and teaching as political activities. The drudgery of teaching is thus transformed into something much more exciting, namely “speaking truth to power”.It is unlikely that the two books under review, both of which present damning criticisms of Said’s book at length and in detail, will change anything. (read the rest here)
From the point of view of the psychology of fiction, one of the criteria that may distinguish great novels from those that are merely entertaining, is that a great work is not about persuasion. There is no mental coercion of the reader to run only on rails laid by the writer. Of course there is structure, with settings, characters, conversation, and events, but along with these a great novelist offers what D.W. Winnicott, in his book Playing and reality, called a "potential space between the individual and the environment," a space in which the reader's imagination can expand, and in which, as the reader takes up the words of the writer, the experience of the book can become the reader's own. George Eliot's Middlemarch is one of the world's great novels because the author offers the reader exactly this kind of space-in-between.(Looking up A Natural History at Chapters in order to insert the link, I find that my tentative plan to assign it for a graduate seminar on "Middlemarch in/and the 21st Century" (along with Soueif's In the Eye of the Sun) will be complicated, if not foiled, by finding it apparently out of print.)
I happened upon a site called Open Letters Monthly; one of their reviewers really hated Smiley's 13 Ways of Looking at a Novel:
Great Books was a bestseller, and many more books have since sprouted in the rut it plowed, with names like Book Lust, The Literary 100, The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, and so on, each offering go-get-‘em homilies about Western classics, and each, it more and more appears, aspiring in a ponderous, paginated way to be a blog. We can vainly hope that the low point of this trend was realized in 2005 with Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, in which the author reads 101 randomly chosen books and then, for no special reason, tells you what she thinks is wrong with them. This book is solely predicated on Smiley’s environmentally unsound conviction that whenever she happens to write something, no matter how trivial or self-involved it is, trees should die so that it may see print. One of the unexplored virtues of the blog may be its role in obviating bad or negligible books by acting as a valve for our more egregious writerly chatterers—in any case, if ever anyone needed a benignly ignorable blogspot account, it’s Smiley. (read the rest here)A much more favorable review of Smiley can be found on this "benignly ignorable blogspot account," right over here. In the meantime, I have ordered the Michael Dirda volume also mentioned in the Open Letters review, Classics for Pleasure, and will eventually review it here in my 'books about books' series.